Texas Border Business
The City of McAllen just hosted the 65th Annual Convention of the International Festivals & Events Association and brought home 82 awards including the international designation and coveted industry award, IFEA Grand Pinnacle, and the IFEA World Festival & Event City Awards.
These hard-won awards and recognitions are the result of a massive effort from McAllen’s city and volunteer teams, who together hosted more than 800 events in 2021 alone, generating over $87 million in economic impact. Joe Vera helped organize this massive effort with the support of city management, the mayor, the city commission, and staff.
When asked about his role in this undertaking, Mr. Vera often defers to others on Team McAllen; “Talk to the mayor,” or “Talk to the city manager.” Finally, during the preparation of the IFEA convention, he agreed to have a conversation at length while the event was coming together. “There are a lot of people in the festival and event business coming from around the world; they are professionals in this industry,” he said.
The name Joe Vera is familiar in the world of festivals, events, and parades. As an Assistant City Manager for the City of McAllen, he oversees cultural, recreational, and special events, and related sponsorships. In the Valley, he is the authority on local and international festivals and is among the few in the world specifically credentialed in this field.
Earning IFEA and other related awards for community festivals and events requires a demonstration of cultural diversity, measured success, and other considerations. Vera started working for the City of McAllen in 2014 with multiple awards and recognitions under his belt, but still had room to grow with the city.
When speaking with him, I wanted to know what motivated him, and how he envisioned events popular enough to attract thousands of families. “I grew up in the business,” he said. “I helped my dad and my mom when they used to promote dances and produce other events. This was from the late fifties, during the sixties, and into the mid-seventies.”
Vera told Texas Border Business, “I grew up seeing what my dad and mom did, and I developed a passion for that. Even though family events are part of our culture, I didn’t want to do that for a living. So being able to do it in a city setting, as a public servant while being able to enhance the Quality of life of the residents, it’s a great feeling.”
Vera worked for the City of Hidalgo and the Hidalgo Chamber for more than 30 years before he came to work with the City of McAllen. He said, “At the time, Roy Rodriguez was named interim city manager. He visited with me about coming to work for the City of McAllen. He told me of the desire of the Mayor, City Commission, and staff to take the city in a new direction, specifically in regard to tourism, events, and destination marketing. He specifically told me of a desire to create a parade for the Christmas holidays. I explained to him that the development of signature events like the McAllen Holiday Parade was a key strategy to tourism growth and national brand recognition.” I said, “it is a commitment of time, money, and human resources.” Roy said McAllen was ready to head in that direction.
The discussions for a parade had started in August/September of the same year. People around him thought the parade was for 2015, not three months away. “It became clear that we were going to do it the same year,” Vera said. It was a difficult task, but not impossible for the man who brought Ice Hockey and Disney on Ice to the Valley. “Those experiences were exclusive to Arenas in Houston and San Antonio, and Valley families would have to drive hundreds of miles to see and experience them,” he said. “
Vera pointed out that the City Commission, the Mayor, the City Manager, and the staff wholeheartedly supported the parade. “And so that’s what made it possible for us to be able to do all this,” he said.“Because of the support from staff, corporate partners, and the City’s resources, we produced a parade in 90 days.”
Through the parade and other festivals and events, the City of McAllen team developed a series of exceptional experiences that attracts families and is quickly earning national recognition. “It’s about bringing family together, quality of life, and destination marketing.”
When Vera started working on the first parade, he brought his friend Jean McFadden to visit McAllen. As the director of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade for 25 years, “She came here to consult with us, see our first production that year, and to tell us how we could make this better. That same year, we also had Barry Kern from Kern Studios of New Orleans, producers of the Mardi Gras Parade. He was here to consult and support the first parade.” Kern also brought props and a float to the parade. They were both impressed by the number of people that came to watch the parade. “We made mistakes, but the results were overwhelming.”
Vera recognizes that McAllen is fortunate and blessed to have a great team. “We have smart, hardworking, competent people who get it. It’s so nice when you can talk to your team and say, this is what we need, and they take off and do it.”
Vera stressed that quality programs are what differentiates McAllen from other communities competing for the public’s attention. “We produce events at a certain level, and we continue to raise the bar, that’s the McAllen way, the McAllen brand.” Vera attributes this quality to his, “great staff. We inspire each other to be better, to do better.”
The logistics to celebrate a McAllen parade are countless, and security is top priority. “Here, we do not worry about that because Chief Victor Rodriguez handles all of it,” he said. “Chief Rodriguez brings in a core of police officers who volunteer from all the departments to handle the parade’s security.” Vera said, “The number one strategic goal for McAllen is to enhance the Quality of life of our residents and visitors; along with that goal is safety. When you produce a large gathering like that, it’s essential to make sure everybody’s going to be safe.”
An event like the McAllen Holiday Parade requires year-round planning and preparation, which is distributed across various City of McAllen departments, with each playing a vital role in the overall production of the event. Among those, is the Parks & Recreation Department, which takes the lead in logistics, parade route operations, float construction, and any other necessary event items. “There are so many different components like the TV production, and the construction of the floats, among others.”
Vera said the city has a float studio where 50 different floats are built. They use a 50,000-square-foot warehouse at the foreign trade zone where floats are stored and rebuilt. He told us about a team of people designing and fabricating the floats, whether metalwork, woodwork, foam work, and the master sculptor who creates the designs. “After the parade, we have the demobilization. So, that’s also part of the logistics.”
Vera talks about a thick manual that serves as a guide with lists of all that must be done to produce a parade. Then there is the Christmas in the Park activity at the municipal park, where the McAllen Chamber of Commerce partners with the city to create that event.
Multiple city departments come together to ensure that every detail is completed before the first float leads the parade. Yajaira Flores, manager of the McAllen Convention Center, and her team also come into action. They set up all the flooring, called Dura Deck, to cover and protect the stadium track as part of a partnership with the McAllen Independent School District to use the stadium.
Joe Vera’s fellow Assistant City Managers, Jeff Johnston and Michelle Rivera, along with the City Manager, truly come together with all of the departments they work with to ensure the success of the nationally broadcasted event. About 40 staff members and community members serve as official parade marshals. They work along the parade route and through the stadium. Every 200 feet, a parade marshal is in place to keep the parade moving.
The McAllen Public Works Department (MPW), directed by Elvira Alonzo, aids and supports the McAllen Holiday Parade in various ways, one of which is to assist with road/alleyway closures at over 60 locations surrounding the 1 ½-mile long parade route. In addition, the Public Works Department- Recycling division implements a successful recycling and post-parade cleanup operation that helps to ensure a positive experience for all.
To ensure the safety of the parade participants and the public attending, departments such as Engineering, Traffic, Public Works, Parks & Recreation, Police, and Fire, MPW work closely with other City Departments such as Traffic, Police, and Fire together to ensure that to have an effective traffic control plan is created and implemented in place.
“Over the past 8 years, the McAllen Holiday Parade presented by H.E.B has seen over 1.8 million spectators and this year was rebroadcast nationwide to some 20 million viewers. While other cities rely heavily on theme parks and private entities to attract visitors, new residents, and businesses; McAllen has developed events. Thinking back to our first parade, the smiles on children’s faces remind me of the smiles at Dodge arena during Disney on Ice,” said Vera. “For many children in South Texas, it is the highlight of the year. None of this would be possible without the support of our corporate partners, media partners, city leadership, and staff.”
As summer winds down and the fall chill is in the air, organizers for the largest illuminated holiday and helium balloon parade in Texas are gearing up to make this year’s 2022 McAllen Holiday Parade even better. Celebrating the theme “South Pole & Beyond,” find out how parade organizers will bring South Padre Island to the McAllen Holiday Parade, presented by H-E-B on Saturday, December 3, 2022.